Last summer, the family and I found ourselves in Durango, Colo., in the southwest corner of the state. Thinking to take in a bit of the local pageantry, we headed to the Bar D Chuckwagon for dinner.
It was exactly what you’d expect – outdoor seating, cowpokes ladling out hearty food on metal plates: chicken and steak, beans and biscuits. Our tablemates were mostly retirees, and while our politics were, shall we say, not in harmony, we managed to carry on general conversation without taking our butter knives to each other’s throats. Respect the elderly, I told myself, repeatedly, through gritted teeth.
After dinner came entertainment, in the form of the Bar D Chuckwagon Wranglers, an energetic quartet of men representing the old-time Roy Rogers school of country music, with big cowboy hats and big belt buckles and kerchiefs jauntily tied around their necks.
We knew we weren’t in Chicago anymore when they launched into a parody of “Old McDonald Had a Farm,” only this was a “misfit farm” populated by crippled animals – a stuttering cow, a harelip dog, a lisping snake (“with a hith hith here, and a hith, hith there”) that sounded remarkably like the stereotyped parody of gay men’s speech you’d hear served up as humor in the 1970s.
My wife and I exchanged glances. What to do? When in Rome, all in good fun, right? Besides, what could we do? Storm out of the Bar D Chuckwagon because its show offended our finely tuned, big-city, liberal sensibilities?
Then came “Low Riders in the Sky,” a parody of “Ghost Riders,” sung in a thick Cheech & Chong growl. “Their tires were all on fire, and their hubcaps they did steal. . .”
The crowd roared – those funny Hispanics and their low-slung, hoppin’, stolen cars!
I couldn’t have been more surprised if the Wranglers had come out in blackface and straw hats, strumming banjos and singing about watermelons and the Swanee River.
It bothered me enough to consider going up to the owner, who joined the Wranglers onstage for a few final tunes, to explain that it is the 21st century now, perhaps time to put away the crude racial stereotypes. But I couldn’t imagine that conversation going well, and besides, the Arizona border was 100 miles away. Who knows how they’d react out here?
Since then, it occurred to me that this kind of prejudice may not be safely limited to the Southwest. Recently, I visited the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen. And was reminded that maybe we aren’t as far removed from “Low Riders” as we’d like when, thinking to share my thrilling columnist’s life with my Facebook friends, I went to write in the update section that I was on my way to the museum. But before I did, I had to pause, worrying about what might get written in my absence, concerned that just the word “Mexican” would spark something ugly from all the otherwise pleasant Chicago-area folk trading photos of comic squirrels on Facebook.
I decided to risk it. My Facebook friends did not let me down, and the National Museum of Mexican Art turned out to be a revelation. I don’t want to say that beforehand I thought of Mexican culture as big sombreros, Lucha Libre and the cucaracha; but the truth is, if you put a gun to my head and asked me to name three Mexican artists, I’d be a dead man.
The museum is spacious and airy and colorful – no white walls here, but shades of tangerine and fuchsia and robin’s egg blue.
“Mexico is about color,” said museum founder and president Carlos Tortolero, who showed me around. The place is small – it isn’t the Art Institute – but what’s there is filled with engaging contemporary and political art, sweet Day of the Dead tableaux and pieces with a wry worldliness and humor, such as “Mona Lupe,” Cesar Martinez’s delightful blend of the Mona Lisa and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The museum is fun, has a great gift shop, and admission is free.
“It’s always been very important to us to be free,” said Tortolero.
Cinco de Mayo is Saturday – a historical holiday commemorating a military victory. But also a day that has been embraced by beer companies as just another party – Halloween for Hispanics. Which on its face is fine. But it could also be something more. Mainstream Americans could use the day as an opportunity to learn a bit about a complex culture that is either unknown or maligned by too many of us. Hispanic immigrants are going to increasingly define the U.S. over the years to come. Their public face – who they are or seem to be – for too long has been set by the Bar D Chuckwagon Wranglers crowd, all too eager to use the illegal entry of a few to indict everybody else, and as a free pass to let their wildest racist fantasies roam. America needs to do a better job of understanding this culture that we’re absorbing every day, and a visit to the National Museum of Mexican Art is a great place to start.